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Published: February 27th 2020
Himeji Castle is recognized as Japan's most magnificent castle, particularly after its recent five-year renovation, and certainly deserves its moniker White Heron Castle.
Built in 1580 by general Toyotomi Hideyoshi, it was never destroyed by war, earthquake or fire and survives to this day as one of the country's twelve original castles. There's a five-story main keep and three smaller keeps, all surrounded by moats and defensive walls. Himeji Castle may be familiar to visitors because of its being featured in films such as Kurosawa Akira's Seven Samurai (1954) , James Bond film You Only Live Twice (1967) and Ran (1985).
You should begin your tour of Himeji Castle exploring the surviving royal residential building with an enclosed corridor and multiple unfurnished rooms, which provides a completely different experience than the main building. Visiting the main keep is an education in defensive strategies: the labyrinth-like approach is designed to slow down invading forces; the many narrow openings known as ishiotoshi allow defenders to pour boiling oil, drop rocks or shoot at intruders; and the many steep, narrow staircases are easier to defend than attack. The main keep is entered through the lower floor of the building, with each level
getting progressively smaller as you ascend. The topmost floor houses a small shrine and lets visitors peer out in all directions, down over the castle roofs and out across the city of Himeji.
Next to Himeji Castle, and well worth a visit, is the Kōkō-en, a modern recreation of an Edo-era samurai residence, with a beautiful garden. The garden features a koi-filled central pond, a waterfall and a teahouse. There are nine separate, walled gardens in total, each in a different design. The layout and building design were based on archaeological excavation of the original residence.
Because our original lunch destination, Sakura Saku, was sold out, we ate at a terrific little Japanese curry house named Spice Suehiro with both meat and vegetarian options. It's near the castle and worth a stop but beware that service is quite slow.
Before leaving Himeji we stopped for sake at Kokoromi, a modern-style standing sake bar with over 250 varieties of sake, much of it locally produced in Himeji's prefecture of Hyōgo. Touch screens with English menus let you search and order sake samples by taste, price, grade and region. Pours come with an English explanation card for future reference.
Look closely when you visit and you might see our photo on the wall.
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